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Gove right on neonics

Gove right on neonics

This week, on the fourth anniversary of the EU-wide partial ban on three neonicotinoid insecticides, the member states are expected to vote on Commission proposals to extend the ban to all outdoor crops. The UK has already indicated that it will support these tougher restrictions, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove stating: “Not to act would be to risk continuing down a course which could have extensive and permanent effects on bee populations”.

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) draft findings on the negative impacts of neonicotinoids to honeybees are no surprise. While evidence of neonicotinoids harming wild pollinators such as bumblebees has been clear for a long time, this study shows there is increasing evidence of neonicotinoids damaging honeybees as well. EFSA had previously confirmed that neonicotinoids are highly toxic to pollinators, warning that exposure occurs beyond crops as the insecticides spread easily into the wider environment.

Worldwide, insecticides are applied on a total treatment area of nearly 6.5 million hectares. Studies from all over the globe now confirm the negative impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators, with the most comprehensive being this year’s major field trial by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), partly funded by the chemical companies that sell neonicotinoids, Syngenta and Bayer. Research into neonicotinoids show that insecticides can have incredibly hard to study, species-specific effects at very low doses – for example, reducing the ability of a bumblebee to forage efficiently or of honey bees to cope with a parasite.

The most disturbing finding about neonicotinoids, however, is that up to 95% of the active ingredient can end up in the soil and not the target crop. Research by Professor Goulson at Sussex University, part-funded by the Soil Association, found that much of the toxic neonicotinoids ends up in wild flowers and hedgerow flowers around the edges of fields. Bees and other insects prefer feeding on those wild flowers which, in effect, become poisonous traps, contaminated by the nearby crop.

An evaluation of 500 scientific studies published since 2014 confirms the high risk posed by these substances, not only to insects, but to vertebrates and wildlife in general. In a recent study of wildlife reserves in Germany, intensive farming practices and pesticides were held responsible for the 75% collapse of insect biomass.

We urge EU member states to vote to extend the ban on all neonicotinoid insecticides this week. Neonicotinoids threaten all pollinators. They clearly never should have been cleared for use, and must be banned as soon as possible.

It is time to consider the bigger picture. The current model of farming based on a very limited number of crops sprayed with an increasing number of toxic ingredients is causing devastating environmental harm and undermining vital ecosystem services that keep us all alive. Simply banning neonicotinoids and replacing them with another toxin will not solve the problem. Alternative systems of farming, such as organic farms which support an average 50% more plant, insect and bird life and are home to an average of 30% more species, are where we should start looking for more sustainable solutions to our agricultural systems.